It’s Back to the Future for UMUC’s Multi-Talented Curator

It’s an understatement to say that Jon West-Bey, who joined UMUC in March as Arts Program Curator, is a renaissance man.

He is avid about playing and teaching chess. He founded a poetry museum. And his nearly two decades of museum experience covers a lot of cultural and historic territory, from African Americans in Maryland’s Prince George’s County to tenement life on New York’s City’s Lower East Side, to Jewish military history.

West-Bey began working in museums in the late 1990s while a student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, after one of his history professors invited him to earn course credit by volunteering at a museum. That experience led to a job at the Valentine Museum, a private institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting Richmond’s history.

“Based on that experience, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in museums,” West-Bey said.

After graduating from VCU, West-Bey joined the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C., as associate curator of collections and programs.  Military history had always fascinated him, he said. And, he added, this particular museum, which is operated by the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., has a rich and fascinating history―and a collection that really stood out to him.

The museum houses more than 5,000 artifacts spanning nearly every American military conflict, although the bulk relates to World War II, and includes a World War II-era soldier’s helmet with a bullet hole through it and a Christmas card signed by Adolf Hitler. “I learned a lot there,” he said.

While working at the museum, West-Bey enrolled in a graduate distance-learning program in museum-education leadership at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. He moved to New York during his second year in the program and took a job as education coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

“The Tenement Museum had a great reputation for having innovative programming, and at the time, the museum’s founder Ruth Abram was still museum president,” he recalled. “To this day, it was one of my favorite places to work, because the staff and leadership were supportive and very easy to work with,” West-Bey said.

In fact, when he shared with Abram his aspiration to start his own museum, something he’d been mulling over since 2000, Abram championed the idea.  West-Bey, who had been involved in spoken-word poetry during his time in Richmond and Washington, knew that the sort of museum he envisioned― one specifically devoted to preserving and presenting American poetry in all of its forms―didn’t exist.

So in 2004, buoyed by Abram’s support and with his newly-minted degree, West-Bey left the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and returned to Washington, D.C., where he founded the American Poetry Museum.

During its first seven years, West-Bey grew the museum’s budget from an initial $100 donation to more than $125,000, according to his LinkedIn page, and raised more than $700,000 from foundation and government grants and individual donations.

West-Bey also launched at the poetry museum more than 150 public programs that served an average of 2,500 people annually and developed a collection of more than 300 works of poetry. He opened a gallery connected to the museum, as well, which featured collaborations between visual artists and poets.

“Starting American Poetry Museum was a way to merge all of my interests at the time,” said West-Bey, who headed the museum for more than a decade and remains involved as a board member.

In 2010, West-Bey joined the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center, first as chief curator, and then as acting executive director. There, he grew the collecting program from scratch to more than 800 objects in five years, curated a dozen exhibits and oversaw a multitude of public and education programs.

“I was drawn to the museum, because it was a start-up, and I enjoyed creating new programs and having the autonomy to develop my curatorial voice,” he said.

West Bey_Framing Art_IMG_4290 [292395]

West-Bey at work in UMUC’s Arts Program “shop”

He brought that cultural voice with him to UMUC last March. “I wanted to get back to my first love in museum work, which is curatorial operations,” he said. “I find focusing exclusively on visual art [to be] a new and unique challenge professionally.”

At UMUC, West-Bey said he looks forward to working with the Art Program’s “dynamic” collection and helping grow it “to add diversity and relevance.”

 I also look forward to working with artists to continue UMUC’s exhibition program, and to developing large and ambitious projects with national and international scope,” he said.

Undoubtedly, West-Bey will not only bring the perspective of an art expert to the task but also that of a chess aficionado who is comfortable with strategic nuance. He started playing as a 9-year-old when living in Hampton, Virginia. It was 1986, and a kid from the neighborhood taught him how to play.

“I picked it up pretty quickly,” he said. “Every time I beat him he would change the rules. That prompted me to go to the library and study the game for myself.”

He played on his middle school chess team and continued independent chess study during high school. College brought correspondence games, and he started teaching chess after he graduated to earn some extra pocket-money.

“I have been teaching {chess] off and on for the last 16 years, mostly with young players,” he said. “I love seeing students develop their game.”

West-Bey worked with the organization Chess Challenge D.C., where he wrote a chess curriculum that more than a dozen Washington elementary and middle schools used. And he continues to play every day online and occasional pick-up games in his southeast D.C. neighborhood, He coaches chess teams, as well.

“The most rewarding thing about chess has been the focus, discipline and creativity that it has added to my thinking,” he said.

One thought on “It’s Back to the Future for UMUC’s Multi-Talented Curator

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    On Tue, Aug 23, 2016 at 4:32 PM, UMUC Global Media Center wrote:

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